Imagine you just started at a new job. You work remotely and have never met your boss in person. Nonetheless, on your first day of work, she asks you questions generally reserved for close friends: What was your family like growing up? Do you smoke weed? Do drugs? Enjoy casual sex? Have you ever had a threesome? Have you ever had group sex (more than three)? Have you been sexually assaulted? Have you ever had an abortion?
For some writers, most of them young, inexperienced, and hungry, that is what it’s like to work at the tremendously popular women’s site Bustle, which had 43.8 million unique visitors in the past 30 days, according to Quantcast. (In a little over a year, its numbers have doubled.) Bustle, which produces aggregated news alongside makeup and entertainment tips, as well as personal essays like, “What Getting A Medical Abortion Was Like For Me,” and “How Jessica Jones Helped Me Through My Own Rape,” sends some of its writers the “Bustle Writers: Identity Survey,” which includes 46 items. One question, which instructs writers to “check all that apply” contains almost 150 identifiers including the types of questions listed in the first paragraph of this post.
After I reached out to the site to inquire about this Survey Monkey-hosted form, it was protected with a password. I took screenshots upon being forwarded the document last week and you can see the survey in its entirety in the embed below:
Some of the survey’s many caveats—this is optional, the information won’t be shared, even if you fill it out you needn’t fill it out in full, you can always say no if you should receive a suggestion for an assignment based on your answers—were upheld by Bustle’s deputy editor Julie Alvin in her response to my request for a comment on this story. Via email, Alvin wrote:
The survey sent to you is a survey that is typically sent to Lifestyle/Identity writers who have been hired to write for Bustle. The survey is completely optional, and all the questions on the survey are completely optional.
When there’s a conversation about a sensitive or complex issue — domestic violence, gender identity, substance abuse and recovery, etc — we want to make sure those topics are covered properly. In many cases, this means working with writers who have firsthand experience and who have expressed a desire to write on those subjects.
At least one former Bustle writer, though, didn’t feel that the survey was optional. “I felt like I needed to fill it out because I didn’t want to seem like someone who was bringing objections to the job right away,” she told me (like everyone else who communicated with me for this story besides Alvin, she spoke to me on the condition that she remain anonymous and unidentifiable). “You don’t ever want to be put in a position where you have to lie to your boss. Even though people can fill out this survey and choose to lie, it’s a weird experience. I’m a journalist. I don’t want to have to lie to this website where I’m supposed to be publishing the truth. Maybe that sounds silly or idealistic, but it was difficult for me to do that, especially on my first day.” She told me that she received this survey with her welcome pack and lied on it anyway.
Another former lifestyle writer for the site told me she wasn’t bothered by the survey at all. “I wasn’t offended by the questions or the fact that Bustle asked them, since our answers stay in-house unless we choose to write about it,” she explained by email. “Essentially, I think the survey is a good thing, mostly because it gives both the writer and the site the ability and opportunity to tell unique stories. The more female voices that are out there—writing on the topics that effect [sic] us the most—the better.”
Cases can be made for and against a survey that distills human experience and outright trauma down to a series of boxes to check, but what is inarguable is that this document is a sign of the times. I would add that it’s a fascinating one. The current media climate demands more life from writers than ever, especially if they aren’t interested in doing actual reporting. The market rewards personal storytelling with attention—the more lurid and specific, the better. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a young xoJane writer seemingly pushed to the brink by what she perceived to be the demands of her job and her reluctance to reveal. Nora Ephron’s signature mantra “everything is copy” has become the norm, except everything can’t ever be enough when your job is to churn out posts on a routine basis.
What this survey looks like to me is a crystallization of the industrialization of confession. It’s an efficient, logical method for testing how much of their guts writers want to spill, and which guts exactly. It was probably inevitable that something like this would be invented, even if it didn’t come from a company whose entire genesis reportedly derived from a rather cynically deterministic view of what women want to read about. Its depressing inevitability resembles that of factory farming, as conveyed by vegan writer James E. McWilliams in the New York Times in 2012:
Subsidies notwithstanding, the unfortunate reality of commodifying animals is that confinement pays. If the production of meat and dairy was somehow decentralized into small free-range operations, common economic sense suggests that it wouldn’t last. These businesses — no matter how virtuous in intention — would gradually seek a larger market share, cutting corners, increasing stocking density and aiming to fatten animals faster than competitors could. Barring the strictest regulations, it wouldn’t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started.
Itemizing actual human experience may be extremely cynical, but it also makes sense in this economy.
Speaking of the economy, it’s less lucrative for a young writer to share her secrets than it is for a publisher to mine them. The former writer that I spoke to who was made uncomfortable by the survey told me she made $90 a day at Bustle ($15 an hour for six-hour shifts)—even less than the paltry $100 day rate attributed to Bustle that leaked a few years ago.
But because Bustle’s premium on revelation is well-established (more than 20 of the pieces that Bustle editor-in-chief Kate Ward highlighted in her Bustle’s 51 Best Articles Of 2015 post involve some sort of confessing), this former writer probably could have predicted being guided by her superiors to share her life on the site.
“It is [part of the job], but I think they should be paying their employees better, first of all, if they’re going to straight up ask for people to share incredibly private parts of their life with them, and right away with your welcome packet, without even meeting any of these people face-to-face,” she said. “This is the first job for a lot of writers who are desperately trying to break into this really competitive world of online writing and I think a lot of them feel like they do have to share that and they don’t necessarily have boundaries. Maybe I’m projecting, but I don’t think that a publication should ask that of their writers. I think it should be something the writers bring up with a publication.”
She nonetheless left the company on good terms, she says. In fact, everyone I talked to expressed that their experiences with the company have been positive. A current lifestyle writer for the site told me she didn’t receive the survey, but she’ll receive sporadic emails from her editor where the reverse pitches stay optional. “If [the subjects] do get a little bit touchier, it’s still voluntary,” she said. “It’s not like she asks us directly to respond and reveal anything. What my experience has been is if I wanted to write on a more sensitive subject or something that’s more personal, I can do that, and there would be no pressure to do so or even answer.”
“You did occasionally get ‘It’s sleep deprivation week, do you want to write an essay for a hundred extra dollars?’,” recalled yet another former writer. “But it was less invasive [than the survey]. They would send out sometimes, ‘If you’ve had an abortion, do you want to write an essay?’ but it was never, ‘Let’s find out who’s had these experiences and go from there.’”
The woman that I spoke with who objected to the survey says she wrote about herself on the site only rarely—her output was more based on lists and aggregation. It was way fluffier than even a personal essay about weed-smoking.
“Most stuff I’ve written is dumb, and that’s fine. I just feel like that’s my job now, to write dumb things for money,” she told me. “I’ve gotten used to putting my name on things that I know are silly, which saying out loud sounds really cynical, but...whatever.”
After receiving Alvin’s statement, I reached back out to Alvin and Bustle PR to engage in further conversation regarding the philosophical implications of the survey, their decision to password-protect it, and paying their writers $90 a day. In response, Alvin wrote:
We do not pay writers by the day, so the compensation information you have is incorrect.
The survey is password protected because the survey you received is outdated, and not intended for external distribution.
I clarified that $15 an hour for 6-hour shifts amounted to $90 a day. I also inquired about when the survey changed, as it was sent to writers as recently as last year. After not hearing back for a few hours, I sent Alvin the following email about her apparently contradicting statements regarding the survey’s use:
Just want to give you another opportunity for clarification: In your initial statement to me, you said, “The survey sent to you is a survey that is typically sent to Lifestyle/Identity writers who have been hired to write for Bustle. The survey is completely optional, and all the questions on the survey are completely optional.” More recently, you said it was outdated. That you referred to it in the present tense initially suggested it was not outdated but still in use. Just want to clear up the apparent contradiction.
I have not heard back from Alvin or Bustle, but I will update this post if and when I do.
[Image above is a modified version of the Bustle Writers: Identity Survey, edited by Jim Cooke]